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Churches and the rise of the Far Right

Churches and the rise of the Far Right

Churches must not be neutral in the face of anti–Muslim and anti–migrant fearmongering, argue Ulrich Schmiedel and Hannah Strømmen. 29/10/2020

About a month ago, far–right protesters descended on Dover, with shouts and flags, singing ‘Rule Britannia’ to rally against migrants arriving on British shores. Far from a unique incident, the demonstrations in Dover attest to the rise of the far right across Europe. Both far–right protesters and far–right politicans stir up hate against Muslims and migrants. How have churches responded? It could be argued that churches have nothing to do with the far right. But for anyone who has kept an eye on the far right during the last decades, it is clear that Christianity is claimed in both its propaganda and its practice. 

New Racism: A Theological Trap

The Norwegian Police Security service recently raised the threat levels of far–right inspired terror, expressing concern over growing numbers of far–right sympathisers. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency cautions that monitoring far–right militants is more and more challenging. The Head of the Police in the UK warns that the threat of violence from the far right is rising fast and furiously. Meanwhile, far–right parties inside parliaments and far–right protesters outside parliaments have gained ground by propagating a battle for Europe: Islam against Christianity and Christianity against Islam, a battle fought with words and weapons.

The scenario of a battle for Europe, sketched in online statements and offline speeches, revolves around what scholars have called ‘new racism’. Since the 1970s and 80s, the far right has shifted from colour–coded (‘racial’) rhetoric to culture–coded (‘religious’) rhetoric to stir up hate. In the battle scenario of the far right, the two religions are markers of inheritance and identity, but Christianity is interpreted as democratic, tolerant and respectful of human rights, while Islam is interpreted as undemocratic, intolerant and disrespectful of human rights. When these interpretations are abstracted from concrete social, political, and economic conditions either in the past or in the present, then these interpretations become a theological trap.

For the far right, people are trapped by their religions. It’s not them choosing ‘their’ religion, but ‘their’ religion chosing them – and all that comes with it. The consequence is clear. Far–right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who killed seventy–seven people in Norway in 2011, saw himself as ‘a supporter of a monocultural Christian Europe’. In his warped worldview, the people he killed had aided and abetted the ‘Islamisation’ of Europe. But the theological trap of new racism can be found in far less extreme forms and far less explicit formats.

The programme of the party Alternative for Germany (AfD) claims that Christianity ought to rule and run the country. There is no place for Islam. For the AfD, Germany is in a ‘war of culture’ in which Muslims clash with Christians. In Britain, Boris Johnson’s comparison of women wearing the burqa to ‘letter boxes’ made headlines. Neither Johnson nor the Conservative Party are ‘far right’, but what sounds like the laid–back joke of an eccentric politician, can be seen as a calculated strategy: tapping into the far–right othering of Muslims, while being able to pass it off as humour. When he added that these women also look like ‘bank robbers’, he brought in allusions to Islam as a security threat. The tone might seem light–hearted, but the context of Islamophobia belies any such innocence. After Johnson’s ‘jokes’, surges in anti–Muslim hate crimes were reported across the country. Policies such as the ‘hostile environment’, including the Home Office’s plans to ‘offshore’ asylum seakers, tap into such othering of migrants and Muslims.

Tying categories of religion to categories of race is in many ways not new. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the other is trapped in the clutches of race or in the clutches of religion, or in a potent mix of the two. What matters is that the other is trapped. The trap is racist, even if it’s set up through religious rather than racial semantics. What lurks behind the trap of new racism is – not always, but all too often – a particular and perilious interpretation of Christianity: Christianity as the inheritance and identity of Europe which needs to be defended against Islam and Islamisation. 

Dismantling the Trap? Churches Respond to the Rise of the Far Right

‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus is asked after he lays out the double–commandment of love. The question has been raised anew in recent church statements on politics across Europe. Jesus answers it by telling the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25–37). And the churches? Comparing mainline churches in Norway, Germany and England, the statements are striklingly similar. Human beings are created in the image of God. The image of God has been confirmed in the practice and preaching of Jesus Christ – for all, regardless of race or religion. Hence, the neighbour is: all of us. But who is ‘us’?

Beatrix von Storch, one of the leaders of the AfD, offered a strange interpretation of the story of the Good Samaritan in which he resembles a restrictive immigration minister. This Good Samaritan pays an aid organization a lump sum to manage the injured man but stamps a firm ‘decline’ on his application for asylum. He will not undertake to support the man’s family. There are plenty of Samaritans closer by who need support. Samaria first. Make Samaria Great Again. By contrast, a statement of the Catholic German Bishops’ Conference (DBK) seems to see the Good Samaritan as a self–sacrificing humanitarian aid–worker who cannot set limits on love, because he sees every encounter with suffering as an encounter with Jesus Christ. This Good Samaritan is almost always on the verge of burn–out. There are so many injured people who need help, both inside and outside Samaria. In Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope, the Archbishop of the Church of England, Justin Welby, presents a Good Samaritan who resembles a savvy public manager, negotiating deals that will help many people. These deals will aid also the Samaritan’s homeland. The global influence of Samaria stays strong.

Examining church statements on contemporary politics, two overall strategies of response to the rise of the far right stand out: consolidation and challenge. No church can be pinned down to only one. There is a lot of mixing and matching going on, but the core components of both strategies are clear.

 Consolidating Church

The strategy of consolidation confirms the capacity of churches to strengthen democracy by bringing people with different and diverse opinions together. The Church of England’s A Prayer for the Nation calls for such a consolidation. ‘God of hope, in these times of change, unite our nation.’ No matter where you made your cross on the ballot paper in the Brexit referendum, for instance, the church contends that ‘now is the time when we can no longer carry on defining each other by how we voted’. In Consensus and Conflict: Politics Needs Contestation, a statement on populism published by the Protestant Churches in Germany (EKD), the rise of the far–right is considered a consequence of the decline of democracy. In order to revive it, the statement suggests, contestation is crucial. The churches consolidate the ‘democratic corridor’ in which conflicts can be confined and carried out by inviting right and left.

The strategy of consolidation calls churches to be neutral: churches are not meant to articulate political positions, but to create spaces where people from the left meet people from the right. But there is a blind spot – a blind spot easily exploited by the far right. Statements that argue for a consolidating church have nothing to say about the target of most European far–right programmes: Islam. 

Challenging Church

By contrast, the strategy of challenge takes Islam into account. For the Catholic German Bishops’ Conference, the acknowledgement that Christianity has spurred hatred of Islam for hundreds of years is a significant step towards change. It also allows for a critique of the assumption that Christianity is somehow inherently democratic. Instead, Christianity comes into view as a religion that can be at least as dubious and dangerous as Islam. Once the complicity and the complacency of Christianity with Islamophobia is acknowledged, the claims of the far–right can be confronted one by one: from Islam to immigration to identity. The statements that acknowledge responsibility for Islamophobia past and present point out that churches ought not to be neutral.

The Church of Norway has produced resources for confirmation classes. The title of these resources, Homo-hore-jøde-terrorist-svarting, is too rude to translate. It combines racial and religious epithets into one long string of insults. (A dictionary will help those who are now irrepressibly curious). Steinar Ims and Iselin Jørgensen from the Church’s Centre for Dialogue are responsible for the collection. Its aim is to help people who are about to be confirmed into the church to analyse racism in the past in order to avoid racism in the present. The resources tackle Christianity’s complicity in the demonisations of others, on racial and religious grounds, head–on. In response to Breivik’s terror attacks in Norway, Ims reflected on the need for cooperation between religions. After the terror attack, churches became open spaces for people to come together, breaking down the new racism where people from different religions are deemed irreconcilably different. He suggested that Muslims and Christians can make use of each other’s spaces of worship, not only in a time of crisis, but to break the spell of far–right myths of an eternal Christian–Muslim clash.

In Germany, the representatives of both mainline churches – Heinrich Bedford–Strohm for the EKD and Reinhard Marx for the DBK – insisted that Christianity must have nothing to do with the far right. They put this into practice. Sea–Watch 4, a rescue vessel purchased through a crowdfunding campaign started by the EKD, saves the lives of migrants in the Mediterranean now. The EKD was confronted by harsh criticisms for its campaign, both internally and externally. But Bedford-Strohm insisted: ‘One does not let any single human being drown – full stop.’ In the strategy of challenge, churches are called to stand with migrants and Muslims. Neutrality is rejected, because it would come at the cost of the marginalized. Whatever strategy churches choose, it has consequences for their neighbours. 

Neighbours Can’t be Neutral

As strategies to respond to the rise of the far right, both consolidation and challenge have a lot to say for themsleves. Yet it’s clear: any response of churches must include preaching and practicing solidarity with those who are singled–out for hate in the name of Christianity. Neutrality isn’t an option. Of course, Muslims and migrants aren’t the only targets of the far right. But given that new racism works by pitting religion against religion, it’s crucial for churches to stand up for them. Many Christian congregations across Europe are practising solidarity with their Muslim and migrant neighbours. When it comes to official church statements, however, the call to be neutral obstructs from taking a clear stand against anti–migrant and anti–Muslim fearmongering. The history of Christianity has all too often been shaped by hatred. Hatred isn’t all there is, but it has been there – and it still is. Covering it up by arguing that Christianity is the only religion that champions democracy plays into the hands of a far right that wants to weaponize Christianity in a battle for Europe.Churches risk confirming far–right claims to Christianity if they remain neutral in the face of anti–Muslim and anti–migrant fearmongering.

When Jesus presents the story of the Good Samaritan as an interpretation of the double commandment of love, he offers no constraints for the commandment: it’s valid when you meet people who share and people who don’t share your beliefs and background. In the story, the one who helps does not share the same beliefs and background as the one who needs help, which suggests that shared beliefs and background might not be the point. In the end, Jesus turns the question around: ‘Now which of these three’, he asks, ‘do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?’ As hate is stoked up against migrants and Muslims, churches are called to reflect again on the significance of Jesus’ question for Christian practice today. 

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 Image: Cari Rubin Photography/

Ulrich Schmiedel and Hannah Strømmen

Ulrich Schmiedel and Hannah Strømmen

Ulrich Schmiedel is Lecturer in Theology, Politics and Ethics at the University of Edinburgh and Hannah Strømmen is Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Chichester. They have recently written The Claim to Christianity: Responding to the Far Right (London: SCM, 2020).


Watch, listen to or read more from Ulrich Schmiedel and Hannah Strømmen

Posted 29 October 2020

Populism, Racism, Terrorism


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